Sooner or later the moment will arrive for everyone, or at least everyone who doesn’t speak Arabic but hopes to discuss this year’s World Cup.
What happens when conversational circumstance forces us to utter the word “Qatar” in public?
Is it Kuh-TAR, like guitar? Or Kuh-TAH? What about the business executives who bang on about how you are 100% wrong and should be saying KUH-ter, like cutter, or something that more approximates KAT-ar?
Why does everyone on TV seem to have a different answer? Can we trust random instructional YouTube videos? Is there a way to say it without adding “or however you pronounce it”? Why hasn’t FIFA issued a formal directive? It has been 12 years, after all, since soccer’s governing body started all this by awarding the sport’s biggest championship to a tiny Gulf nation.
But while a four-page phonetic guide created for journalists traveling to Qatar does offer a degree of linguistic relief — offering step-by-step pronunciations of handy phrases like “Help!” — it is silent on the name of the place where you might need to say them.
The problem: The Arabic pronunciation of “Qatar” is very different from the English one.
If you’re an English speaker, you’re probably saying it incorrectly, but only in the sense that your pronunciation of “Paris” or “Chile” would be considered wrong from the point of view of a Parisian or a Chilean.
Which means that the real question is: What sort of wrong is right?
“There’s no real guidance,” said Neil Buethe, the chief communications officer for the United States Soccer Federation, whose team has slowly trickled into the country with the name the players wish they could pronounce. “It’s definitely been a debate.”
Yes, it has. Online, a Qatari known as Mr. Q has posted a series of videos for visitors, including one that begins, “I’ve gone ahead and noticed that a lot of foreigners are teaching foreigners how to pronounce Qatar.” He then shows a few clips of people saying “Qatar” in various painful ways on American TV and adds: “I respect you, you respect me, we’re all respecting each other right now — but no.”
Hassan Al Thawadi, the head of the Supreme Committee directing the World Cup preparations, said in an interview that pronunciations of “Qatar” vary even inside the host country.
This has not helped alleviate the general confusion among visitors.
“People were saying ‘KUH-ter’ when we got there for the first time last December,” Buethe said of his trips to the country in advance of the World Cup. “But we had many conversations with individuals and with people in the federation, and they told us it wasn’t correct: Don’t say, ‘KUH-ter.’”
Jenny Taft, a sideline reporter for Fox Sports, which will broadcast the World Cup in the United States, said the network had made a command decision.
“I don’t know who made the call, but we’re going with Ka-TAR,” she said in an interview. “I’m not sure why, but that was the decision made. And it is unique, right? Like, I probably was saying KUH-ter leading up to this. But Ka-TAR is, I guess, probably the more recognizable way the country is pronounced.”
Walker Zimmerman, a defender for the U.S. team, said that was what he planned to do, too. “I say Ka-TAR,” Zimmerman said in an interview in the fall. “I know it’s probably not the correct way — KUH-ter is for those who probably know what they’re talking about a little bit more — but I’m going with Ka-TAR.”
The German television network ZDF has taken a different approach: Its employees were informed via email that they were to go with KAT-ar. Martin Tyler, the legendary Sky Sports broadcaster who is working his 12th World Cup this year, said he would do the same.
None of these idiosyncratic decisions resolves the main questions, however: What is the actual pronunciation of the word?
To begin with, said Sarab Al Ani, who teaches Arabic at Yale University, the first consonant in the word Qatar doesn’t really translate into a K or a Q sound. It’s actually a glottal sound, meaning it emanates from the glottis, in the back of the throat — a muscle English speakers don’t get to exercise much.
“What’s happening is that the very back of your tongue is lightly and quickly touching the roof of your mouth, creating the initial sound,” Al Ani said.
She suggested flattening your tongue and tilting your head slightly forward, to shorten the distance between tongue and throat. “It makes the distance as close as possible,” she explained. “You have to push your tongue back a little bit to create the contact with the roof of your mouth — just a gentle touch, one second — and then make the sound.”
The word Qatar has its emphasis on the first syllable, she said. Following that, the T is quick and explosive — “a dark T,” she called it, slightly hollow. To make the correct sound, it helps to un-flatten your tongue by curving it down slightly. The A is pronounced rapidly, and the R, Al Ani said, is “closer in pronunciation to a Spanish R.”
She proceeded to demonstrate a couple of times, and then said, encouragingly, that English speakers, even World Cup reporters, might need a lot of practice before getting it right. Now that we’ve cleared that up, sort of, what are we meant to do with our newfound knowledge?
The author Mary Norris, an expert in proper usage who is a former copy editor at The New Yorker, said that foreign place names can be tiny little pronunciation minefields. Use the American pronunciation and you might seem deliberately ignorant; use the native one and you risk sounding aggressively pretentious.
She mentioned the Kabul conundrum — Ka-BOOL? Or COB-ble? — and admitted that she has no independent information about the pronunciation of “Qatar.” “I’m sure that in American English we’re not expected to come up with an Arabic pronunciation,” Norris said.
She did say she had once heard her doctor refer to a country he called “cotter” on the phone. “I think he was saying ‘cutter,’” she said, “but in a Brooklyn accent.”
If all of this is just adding to your anxious confusion, please take heart from the soothing message imparted by an official at the Consulate General of the State of Qatar in New York. The official, who asked that her name not be used because she is not supposed to speak to the news media, said that every day she has to listen to English speakers mangling the country’s name in a variety of baroquely inaccurate ways.
But if you’re going with Ka-TAR, you’re fine, she said. (“Cutter” is less fine.) “It’s not your fault,” she went on. “Some letters in Arabic you don’t have in English, so you cannot pronounce it the same way we do. We know you’re doing the best you can.”